Anna and Mama were very close, but then again for the first seven and a half years of Anna's life there had only been the two of them. They lived in a neat little bungalow the windows shaded by green awnings with pale yellow stripes and there was a wonderful screened-in porch on the back where they took most of their meals in the summer when it wasn't too hot, and you'd better believe it did get hot in Biloxi Mississippi in the summertime. The house was only ten minutes from Mama's secretary job and better yet it was just a few blocks away from the beach where they would walk almost every afternoon.
Mama was wonderful. Even her name was wonderful. Mary Elizabeth, Anna thought it one of the prettiest names she had ever heard. Just like Mama.
Mrs. Hall next door said that she had a "porcelain complexion". That fit pretty well. Mama had creamy white skin very lightly dusted with freckles. Her thick wavy hair was a wonderful strawberry color, she reminded Anna of the fairy princess in her favorite storybook. She was lithe and graceful making her normal stride seem more like a dance than simply walking. Mama turned more than one head wherever she went.
Anna wished like everything that she could one day look like Mama instead of the roley poley little dumpling she was. She felt like an ugly duckling most of the time as she peered through the thick lenses of her glasses.
She often wondered why she couldn't have taken after Mama in some way. No strawberry hair for her, no just plain ole brown hair pulled back in a pony tail, nothing much to brag about.
She couldn't even be sweet like Mama. Anna never the shy one was always ready to speak her mind or set someone straight when she thought they were wrong. She didn't really like to fight but she wouldn't run away from one either. In second grade she had gotten into trouble at school for busting Eddie Archer's lip when he had made fun of her glasses.
Mama was many things, she was a playmate, a confidant, a friend…but she was also a stern disciplinarian. There wasn't much that got by her. At times Anna was certain that she had eyes on the back of her head. She hardly ever raised her voice and never made a scene in public but Anna could tell when she was displeased and she was greatly displeased about that little episode. In fact Mama had been ticked off big time. "Rolling around on the ground brawling with boys and then being sent home from school!" she shook her head. Why in the world do you act like that?"
"But Mama, he made fun of me…he called me four eyes and he said I was ugly, and then Gina called me fat and he laughed and stuck out his tongue and that just made me so mad!" She tried to justify.
"I don't care what they said, you know that you shouldn't fight." Mama's voice softened and she continued "They're just words baby, they don't mean anything." Mama tried to sooth as she held an ice pack to the little girl's scraped knuckles.
"Maybe so…but they don't' have to be so mean." Anna pouted.
"I know baby, but there are mean people everywhere and you will run into them every day. You can't go around hitting people every time they make you angry. Don't you see that Anna…?"
"Yeah, I guess." She agreed half heartedly rolling her eyes.
"Anna, sometimes I think you're too much like me. You're just as headstrong and stubborn as I ever was and I'm just tying to keep you from making the same mistakes that I've made. There are times when I think my life would have been a lot easier if I had listened to folks who tried to warn me. if I'd tried to act more like a lady."
"Well I ain't planning on being no lady." Came the sullen reply.
"Don't say ain't, and yes you will grow up to be a lady if it kills us both." Mama said in her calm voice which was testament to the fact that this wasn't the first such conversation they'd had.
That had been in the fall, by spring Mama began to have weak spells.
Only a few short months later Mama came down with a cold she couldn't shake. Then one day she fainted at work, she tried to put it off to just being tired but her boss made her go get a check up…
The next thing Anna knew she was meeting grandparents she never knew she had and packing up their belongings. They were leaving their little house to live with people she didn't know and for the first time in her life Anna felt just a little bit frightened though she'd never admit it for the world.
The old man who was her grandfather seemed to know what she was feeling, He didn't lie to her and tell her that everything would be ok or that she should cheer up, but what he did say made her feel not quite so tight inside. He told her "Ya know, home aint necessarily a house. I found out that home, real home is somebody you love. Now I don't reckon that this here house would be a very nice place to live if your mama wasn't here, do you?"
She shook her head solemnly looking back at him, she knew what he was talking about. Mama was home. Wherever Mama was, home was.
She thought about it for a minute or two and came to the conclusion that this old man might not be so bad after all. Besides he said aint and got away with it, maybe she could too.
He winked and grinned at her, then he held out a stick of gum for her which she took thus sealing their new friendship.
Anna and her grandfather or "Papa" as she decided to call him became best friends. When she let herself get to know him she found that there wasn't anything in this world that she couldn't tell him and she told him pretty much everything. Unlike most adults he didn't talk down to her and as far as he was concerned she was as smart as most of the adults he knew. If asked he would say that he liked her a darn site more anyway. And though he didn't voice his opinion to Mama he quietly approved of her "standin up for herself" it showed spunk.
After a recent altercation at the new school, Anna took refuge with Papa who sat in the swing on the front porch of their old house on Tate Street. "How come Mama is always pickin on me?" she grumbled with a pout.
"Well, Sweet Pea, I don't really think she's pickin on you…she just wants to make sure you have proper manners. That tends to be pretty important to most mamas." Was his answer.
"Hmph! I don't care, he deserved what he got and I'll do it again if I have to."
"No I reckon you won't, if your mama said not to fight, then you ought not to fight. She is your mama and it's your job to do what she says." Papa said not as an order or a reprimand, it was more a statement of fact.
"Ok, I guess so, but she oughta take my side once in a while." Anna said grudgingly, almost the same thing she'd said to her mother earlier.
"Well I'd a thought by now you'd know that she's always on your side, aint nobody else as much on your side as she is. I guarantee that for sure. You want to know something else?" he winked at her with a slight smirk on his face "it won't be long before this Jake-legged boy will be begging you to hang around with him. I can tell that you're gonna be a real looker one day."
Anna froze holding her breath, finally in a guarded voice she asked "You really think so?"
"Sure do, after all your mama was a scrapper just like you and look at her now she didn't turn out too bad did she?"
"No she didn't" Anna felt hopeful, after all her mama was the prettiest grown up lady she knew. "You think my hair will change when I grow up…you know, to look like hers?"
"Naw, I think you take after your daddy in looks, I never met him myself but your mama says that you are the spitin image of him."
"Yeah, that's what she tells me all the time." Anna was resigned to the fact that she would grow up to look like some man she'd never known with brown hair and green eyes. Hopefully she wouldn't grow a beard too, but then again…well she could always join the circus…hummm.
Georgia Gail, Anna's grandmother was just an older version of Mama. At fifty-five she was still a beautiful woman. There were wisps of gray streaking her auburn hair but other than that the years had been very kind to her. She was definitely not your average grandma and Anna just couldn't bring herself to call her that either. "Grandmother" was too stuffy, "Granny"…well she was so not that and "Me maw" didn't fit either. Every name she thought of seemed disrespectful somehow but out of the blue one day and without thinking she called her Meme and it fit. Yep fit like a glove. Soon even Papa found himself using the name.
Meme had grown up in this very house and knew everyone in town, and everyone in town knew her. And as is the case in most small southern towns everyone knew everyone's business. Papa had been heard to say that "You can't pass wind in this town without everybody knowin what you had for supper."
Once every three months Meme played host to Calvary Chapel Baptist Church's Ladies prayer group. She would scrub the house for days and keep Papa busy in the yard raking up pine straw and hauling off pine cones and dead limbs that would fall out of the trees. Once she even made him paint the front porch when she noticed a flaky patch by the steps. Then she would bake all sorts of little dainty cakes and cookies to be served with finger sandwiches and pitchers of iced tea and lemonade.
Anna was next. The little girl would have raw knees and elbows for days from the scrubbing Meme would give her. Then she would have to wear a dress because Meme didn't want the church ladies thinking that they were raising a little heathen. Had there been any way that Anna could have found a place to hide she would have done so, but Mama knew all the hiding places (Probably because they had been hers first).
Once Anna had tried to get Papa to help her get out of the unpleasant affair but Papa only shook his head and added "Well you know Sweet Pea, Meme don't ask for much. I think the least we all can do is spiff up and act like good church folks while the old cats are here." Papa winked otherwise keeping a straight face.
Anna agreed only because she had no choice, she was outnumbered three to one.
The last time Meme had had the "Old Cats" over, she had prompted Anna to sing for the ladies. They were all expecting some new song she had learned in Sunday school, but Anna had found an old VHS tape on which someone had taped a classic Marx Brothers movie. She had fallen in love with their antics and had watched the movie over and over again. So when Meme had nudged her to perform for the church ladies…she had been more than eager this time.
She began the song a little nervous at first but became emboldened by the ladies awe at her wonderful performance. Meme sat stunned unable to move, a few of the church ladies gasped in shock but there were some who smiled and chuckled to one another, eyes twinkling in merriment.
Her volume had increased by the time she got to "Lydia oh Lydia, that encyclopida, Oh Lydia the Queen of Tattoo. On her back is the Battle of Waterloo. Beside it the wreck of the Hesperus, too. And proudly above waves the Red, White, and Blue, you can learn a lot from Lydia."
That's when she learned how fast Meme could move once she got going. One minute she was the center of attention in the living room, the next she was standing in the spotless kitchen, her audience gone from a room of ladies to a smirking Papa who sat at the table sipping at his coffee his eyes unusually bright.
At the look of hurt on Anna's face Papa stood up and took her hand. Then without missing a beat he started in on the last verse "Oh Lydia, oh Lydia that encyclopidia, Oh Lydia the champ of them all. She once swept an Admiral clear off his feet." Anna smiled timidly and took the next part "The ships on her hips made his heart skip a beat." And they both finished with "And now the old boy's in command of the fleet, For he went and married Lydia."
Anna loved Papa with all her heart but sometimes there was this deep longing to know her daddy. Maybe it was her fear for Mama. It was becoming more and more evident that Mama wasn't getting better. Perhaps it was this unease that caused her to begin to fantasize about him. She could only imagine how he might look. How he would tell her stories and teach her to dance. Papa said that he would do it if it wasn't for the fact that he had two left feet.
Anna had plied her mother with questions about her daddy in the past but Mama never really told her much. Always evasive on this subject she surprised Anna one night while brushing her long dark hair, a nightly ritual for them since Anna could remember. One hundred strokes to keep it healthy and shiny.
Mama had looked into Anna's eyes through the mirror. "You look so much like your father, I can almost see him." was the wistful remark as she tugged the brush through the long thick strands "His hair was darker than yours, it almost looked black sometimes until he'd get out into the sun." she smiled lost in her memories "You've got his eyes too, all green and sparkly like the stones in Meme's broach." She put the brush down and touched her finger to the tip of Anna's nose. "His nose pointed up just the tiniest little bit just like yours…yeah you're your daddy's little girl alright." she said with a wistfulness that took Anna even more by surprise.
Anna turned where she sat so that she could look directly into her mother's face "Mama? Where is my daddy? Why aint he here with us?"
Mama took a moment and then replied "He had to leave us…but he had his reasons honey, he had his reasons." And that was all she would say. Mama took the brush up again and motioned for Anna to turn around on her stool. They finished the one hundred strokes in silence. Anna had wanted to know more but she knew that the subject was closed so she kept quiet.
Mama had always been an independent person so it had not been easy for her to give up her small house and move in with her parents. But when her health had begun to fail she knew that she couldn't do this alone.
Anna had never really known fear before but the grownups were keeping things from her. She heard the word cancer whispered a couple of times and caught Meme in the kitchen after bedtime on hands and knees scrubbing an already sparkling floor with tears streaming down her face.
Finally she had asked Papa "What's wrong with Mama? I know it's bad. Is she gonna get better?"
Papa had looked oddly uncomfortable and for the first time since she had met him he wouldn't meet her eyes. He ducked his head and in a faltering voice he told her the truth.
Some days were better than others. On the days when she had to go to the hospital for one of her "treatments" Mama would always come home tired, worn and sick to her stomach, usually heading straight for the comfort of a dark bedroom. Anna tried her best to be quiet and not be a pest but....then there were days when she wanted to talk to Mama so bad it hurt and she would sneak into Mama's room and whisper to her about what had happened during the day.
On the days when Mama wasn't so sick she could laugh and talk like she always had before...
One morning Anna crept in to find Mama retching into the little trash can by her bed. Anna panicked and ran for Meme. She stood watching as Meme bathed the pale sweaty face with a cool cloth humming the same little tune that Mama had always hummed to make Anna feel better. It was weird and scary and she wanted to hit somebody, hard.
Another morning as Meme helped Mama to the bathroom Anna saw much of Mama's strawberry colored hair still lying on the pillow. Horrified she ran and hid in Papa's embrace where she would stay for most of the morning. It was then that she realized that Mama might leave her too and it hurt more than she could say.
Papa had tried to explain what this cancer thing was but Anna didn't think Papa knew much about it himself.
On Anna's ninth birthday, Mama could no longer get out of bed. It hurt to see her wasting away like that and Anna knew for sure now that her mama was never going to get any better. With this realization came a certain loss of innocence. Anna didn't want to grow up but it was inevitable it had snuck up on her when she wasn't looking.
Mama slept most of the time now and wasn't very aware of the people coming and going. Some brought food. Some brought flowers. Some just brought themselves. She supposed they were all saying their goodbyes.
Anna didn't remember a whole lot about the funeral service…other than the flowers that is. She had never seen so many different colors in one place. She knew that one of Mama's friends had come to sing and that their pastor had said a lot of nice things but she really didn't pay attention, all she could think about was that Mama was gone and how bad she already missed her.
She was vaguely aware of the somber conversation of the adults in the car during the long ride out to the cemetery, their voices almost lulling her to sleep. Later as they all stood quietly during the little grave side service she let her mind wander. "Daddy, where are you right now? Do you know about Mama?" And then the somber thought "Or is she with you now?" this thought made her even more afraid.
She forced herself to push that feeling down, her mama wouldn't like it, no she wouldn't not one little bit.
So she shook herself and set about to study the assembled mourners. She took her time going from face to face. There were relatives and family friends and there were even a few of the old friends from the coast.
As she glanced around the circle she noticed a lone man up on the hill a good bit from where they were all gathered to say their final farewells to Mama.
Anna pushed her glasses up firmly against the bridge of her nose and squinted her eyes trying to get a better look at him but he was too far away. Suddenly she got the absurd idea that he must be her daddy.
"Papa! Look!" she whispered desperately tugging at his sleeve and pointed toward the hill "I think that's my daddy!"
The notion had taken him completely by surprise. Where in the world had she gotten such an idea? He shook his head and whispered back "No, Anna he's just the man who…finishes up when…you know, when everybody's gone."
Anna had nodded but couldn't give up the notion that maybe, just maybe her daddy had come to the funeral. It made her feel better thinking that he had been there for her.
When Anna was twelve Meme had succeeded in pushing her into piano lessons. This was not necessarily something she wanted to do, but Meme asked so little of her and she didn't want to disappoint her.
Two times a week Anna would walk down the street to Mr. Nixon's house for lessons.
Mr. Nixon a slight black man who always wore a crisp white shirt and bowtie was in his 70's. He taught History down at the high school until he retired and had then supplemented his retirement income by teaching unwilling children to play the piano. He was stern when he needed to be and demanded respect. He had taught Mama how to play and Meme was sure that if Anna put her mind to it she would someday play as well as Mama had.
At first she only went to please Meme, but soon she became fascinated by Mr. Nixon. He told her stories of Babylonian queens, Egyptian armies and slave ships. There seemed to be little he didn't know. He told her that he had marched in Selma and had actually shook the hand of Dr. King once. Anna was in awe…Dr. King was someone you read about in books…he was famous and here she was talking to someone who had actually shook hands with him. this was probably the closest she had ever gotten to a celebrity.
A year later she was to play at her first piano recital. Nervous didn't begin to describe how she felt. When Meme had admonished her to eat her supper she only shook her head "I can't Meme, there are too many butterflies fluttering in my stomach."
"What! you nervous? I don't believe it! It's not in your character to be afraid, now you sit down and eat your supper before it gets cold." She scolded "Besides you have natural ability just like me," she curtsied with a quick smile "and just like your mother."
"Meme is right ya know." Papa winked and stuffed another forkful in his mouth. Anna grinned and made an attempt to eat. Once she got started she realized she was maybe a little hungry. She shrugged and kept eating until her plate was clean, maybe Papa and Meme were right after all she had memorized the music book from cover to cover and she found out that she loved to play after all. Why worry? If she goofed, she goofed, 'Big fat hairy deal'. She knew she would never be a concert pianist but she had learned to have fun playing so who cares if she made a mistake? "Yeah right" the butterflies tapped out in code on the inside of her stomach.
Anna stood backstage waiting her turn. She found a slit in the curtain and peeked through to see the audience. There were so many people out there. Not a packed house mind you but more than she had expected. She shivered still feeling jittery. "Stop it now!" she scolded herself "Get a hold of yourself!" Then she found Meme and Papa sitting in the third row. They looked almost as nervous as she felt, oddly enough that helped a little bit. She laughed to herself, "oh well misery loves company I guess.' She giggled.
She kept scanning the rows and low and behold there he was sitting in the isle seat on the back row. Handy for a quick getaway Papa would have said. He was in the shadows far back and she couldn't get a clear look at his face, but she decided it had to be him. she really needed for it to be him right now, so she made up her mind that that was her daddy sitting out there.
When it was her turn at the piano she decided to sit down and just have fun. She did flub once or twice but she kept going and really no one seemed to notice her mistakes. Papa who never made much of a fuss was grinning from ear to ear. When Anna had played her last note and stood for her bow, he did something very un-Papa like, he leapt to his feet shouting and clapping. He pulled the poor man sitting next to him up into a bear hug pounding him on the back "That's my girl up there!" he released the poor man who was grinning good naturedly and clapping Papa on the back now.
Anna scanned the back row and the man in the dark was still there clapping as enthusiastically as everyone else. With one last bow she turned and left the stage giving the next performer an encouraging smile. When she got to her place behind the curtain she scanned the back row again but he was gone. She smiled to herself "yup that had to be my daddy alright" she locked the moment away in her heart.
Later that evening back at home Anna hugged her grandparents tightly "Thank you…both of you. I know times are hard right now, but thank you for making me take the lessons."
Papa and Meme exchanged looks and Papa cleared his throat. "Well, Sweet Pea, times have been a little hard here and there but we're doin alright, besides we didn't pay for your lessons."
"What? I don't understand." she was a little confused.
"Well ya see, when your mama passed on, there was this here lawyer feller come by one day and told us that there was an account set up for you, to pay for clothes and school and things like that. He said that since your mama wasn't…" he swallowed still feeling the pain of that loss "well he said that it would pass on to me and Meme to make sure that you got what you needed."
Anna stood staring "Where did the money come from?" she wanted to know.
"I don't rightly know exactly, but it would be my guess that your mama and the man that was your daddy come to some kind of understandin." Papa was beginning to look very uncomfortable, "I guess you're old enough to hear all this. Seems like for some reason they couldn't get married but he was willin to look after you in his own way. You know, we never got a bill from the hospital for well, you know. Me and Meme went down there to see what your mama's insurance didn't take care of so that we could pay what was left but come to find out she didn't have any insurance. I told this woman in the billing department that we couldn't pay the whole thing all at once but that we'd like to pay it off in payments. She told me that there weren't no need seeins how the bill was already paid. I don't know who did it but I just figured it mighta been your daddy. Don't know nothing about him, never met him myself, but your mama never had a bad word to say for him, and ya could always trust your mama to know people. She had a real gift for that." Papa finished and just sat looking at her as she processed this bit of information.
Later as she lay in bed wide awake her thoughts flying furiously. She wondered "Daddy where are you? and then there was a very disconcerting thought that brought her up short. Did he have a whole different family somewhere else? This was something she had never considered. The more she thought about it the more she knew that her daddy wouldn't do that.
She knew that most of the family thought her daddy was a cad for not marrying Mama. That was her new word…cad…she had read it in a romance novel. Cad…it did kinda sound exciting and maybe just a little romantic, but for some reason she couldn't associate this word with her daddy though. He wasn't a cad, a scoundrel, a rogue maybe but not a cad. What Papa had told her earlier was just icing on the cake as far as she was concerned. He was a good man and he loved her. After all he was taking care of her wasn't he? Yeah, he was ok in Anna's book. Like Mama had said, "he had his reasons."
At fifteen Anna was turning into a real beauty. She had progressed from glasses to contacts and she had grown from pudgy little girl to slim and graceful young woman.
Mama had been tall and willowy but even she didn't have the same fluid grace Anna now possessed. She was almost feline in her movements at times and the vivid green of her eyes only added to the illusion.
Papa had begun to worry. He could see that heads were turning and he hated the fact that Anna was growing up. He knew that it was only a matter of time…even now she was getting ready for her first date. She had been out with friends before but she had never really been alone with a boy and Papa wasn't sure if he liked this. Nope not one bit.
The butterflies in Anna's stomach were at war again and Meme kept after her to eat just a bite. "Here" she said shoving a spoon full of something toward her face "this will settle your stomach.
"Meme please!" she said turning away "I'm alright, just nervous that's all"
Meme was shocked. "What have you to be nervous about, I'd like to know. Why he should get down on his knees and thank the good Lord above that you'd even consent to speak to him. My lands child! Never let him know! If he has any idea he can make you nervous, then you have given him power over you. Never, Ever, let him see you perspire. It is you who should be making him nervous!" Meme added with a light pat to her cheek.
Anna laughed feeling the butterflies calm down "Ok, ok it's just that he is the cutest boy in school and of all the girls in my grade he asked me to go out this weekend."
"Ahum!" Papa cleared his throat "I'd like to know a little bit more about this 'cute' boy"
Pop! The butterflies were at it again. "Papa, I told you. He's Michael Harrihan and he's a nice boy so leave him alone."
"I don't know what you're talkin about" he tried to sound wounded watching her out of the corner of his eye.
"Well I aint real sure this jake-legged boy is good enough for you, no matter how 'cute' he is. If he lays a hand on you…well we'll just see how 'cute' he is with my boot stickin…"
"Papa!" Anna cut him off "Michael is a decent young man, he's not going to try anything, he's just not like that." She assured him.
Michael met Anna at the door. He nodded respectfully and shook hands with Papa . "Please to meet you sir." The boy smiled handsomely.
Immediately Papa didn't trust him. He narrowed his eyes and squeezed the boys hand in an iron grip. "Now I want Anna home by eleven o'clock and not a minute after."
"Papa!" Anna was embarrassed.
"Oh don't worry Mr. Lee," Michael smiled wincing as Papa gripped even tighter "We're going for burgers and then we'll catch a movie and I swear that I'll get her home in time."
"You just see that you do." Papa released the 'cute' boy's hand and watched as he took Anna's arm and walked her out to his old pickup.
They didn't go for burgers after all, they ended up at a party instead. Anna was uneasy, it felt like she had lied to Papa.
It didn't bother Michael though, he was having too much fun and drinking too much punch, cup after cup. He was beginning to act stupid and Anna was very uncomfortable. "Michael, I want to go home."
"Home! What are you talking about? It's time to party." he grabbed her arm and pulled her into the middle of the room "come on now baby lets dance. Shake your little booty for Mikey."
"No!" she jerked her arm away "Michael I want to go home. This is not where we're supposed to be. You told Papa we were going to a movie and…"
He cut her off "Do you really think he wanted to hear that we were going to biggest blast of the year? Come on sweet thing, loosen up and have a little fun."
Anna was disgusted, disappointed and embarrassed. She felt like a fool Why in the world hadn't she seen this coming? She turned on her heal and headed for the door with Michael in pursuit.
"Hey Mikey! Where ya goin? The party's just getting started." Came a shout from behind them. "Ok! Hold on! We'll be right back!" Michael shouted back.
He caught Anna just outside the door. "Hey baby come on back in, what your old man don't know can't hurt him." she jerked her arm away a second time and fled down the front steps Michael right behind her. He caught up with her and grabbed her by the arm roughly swinging her back around "What? You think you're too good? Well I expect to have a good time" he pulled her closer until their faces were almost touching "and you're gonna give it to me." He brought their lips together for a hard bruising kiss.
Anna was in shock but it didn't last long. Her knee came up hard followed by a right upper cut to the jaw effectively putting him on his butt.
Without another word Anna stormed off, her mind made up to walk home.
Michael Gerald Harrihan, captain of the high school football team and amateur bull riding champion, had been neatly felled by a mere slip of a girl. "I'll get you for this you little slut" he screamed after her, tears streaming while he curled up trying to protect his family jewels. "I'll get you, just you wait!" he sobbed.
Suddenly he was hauled up by the scruff of the neck and shoved face first up against the side of the house his cheek impacting with the brick wall "Oh yeah, big guy?"
A low growl sounded in his ear "Now I don't think you want that kind of trouble, so… you leave her alone and I'll think about letting you off easy, but if you hurt her, if you lay a hand on her again, say anything about her or do anything, anything at all that causes her pain…I will hunt you down and teach you the meaning of real pain. Do you understand me?" the voice was frighteningly calm.
The terrified boy whimpered and nodded.
"Good, I'm glad we understand one another. I'll let you go now," The low growl dropped to a whisper. "but don't forget, I Know Where You Live." Warm breath tickled past the boy's ear.
That's when Mikey wet himself and went limp in a dead faint. His unseen attacker released him to slide down the wall where he was found a few minutes later by his friends.
The official police report stated that he had been accosted by multiple assailants who had tried to rob him. The victim had fought back but there had been too many of them and events transpired too fast for the victim to get a good look at any of them.
Anna never told anyone about her part in what happened and she was unaware of her guardian angel's warning to the cutest boy in the whole school so when he left her alone after that not trying to get back at her she felt that it was a pretty fair trade.
Anna had been unable to have a sweet sixteen birthday party due to Papa's accident. He had been up a ladder cleaning out the gutters when the ladder turned and landed Papa onto the brick walk flat on his back and then in the hospital for a couple of days and then home in bed for the next week. He hadn't broken any ribs but he had sure bruised them up pretty bad and as he was known to say himself, "I sure aint as young as I used to be" somehow they could never find the time to do it later so on Anna's seventeenth birthday Meme had gotten up at the crack of dawn to get ready for the big party that had been planned for that night. Oh there was so much still left to do. Everything had to be just right for her baby girl who was growing up so fast and would be going off to college in just a few weeks.
She had scrubbed the floors till they gleamed, washed curtains, vacuumed rugs and had cooked for two days. She was tired and there was a pain in her jaw that was a little worrisome but she didn't have time to give into the pain there was still the cake to frost and the watermelon basket to carve.
Her carpel tunnel decided to make an appearance making her left wrist ache while she was trying to get the name just right on the cake. When the cake was finally done the pain in her jaw had radiated up into her head for the worst headache she had ever had and then down into her neck and shoulders and the ach in her wrist was enough to make her grit her teeth. She decided that if she were to lie down for just an hour she would still have time to finish the watermelon and get ready for the party.
Two hours later Papa found her. The doctor said it was a massive heart attack. He never did explain how that came to be. Anna had never heard that a headache could be a symptom of a heart attack.
Anna felt like her own heart would stop but she had to be strong for Papa so she put her own grief and fear to the back of her mind for later.
Meme's funeral was a lot like Mama's had been. Lots of flowers, lots of kind words…lots of people. The big difference was that she couldn't just drift this time. She was the one who had to talk to people, who had to accept all the hugs and watery smiles, she had to pay attention.
At the cemetery she watched the faces of the people around her, they were all the same just older.
During the final prayer she let her eyes wander to the hillside half expecting to see someone standing there. She should have known better.
It wasn't until she and Papa were walking back to the car that she saw him and her heart skipped a beat. As always he was too far away to see clearly but there he was on the other side of the cemetery. This time he wore a black leather jacket. She laughed and shook her head. "Get a hold of yourself girl!" she scolded herself "It's time to grow up, it's time to stop seeing things that aren't there."
The next year passed in a blur. She kept herself busy stepping into Meme's shoes, trying to be there for Papa and going to collage too.
Papa was not himself though. Oh he tried to put on a brave face but he was lost without Meme. He moved through those days almost like he was walking in his sleep.
Anna worried but didn't know what to do. He still looked like Papa but the light had gone out of his eyes and he gradually began to just fade away.
He died almost a year after Meme, only two weeks short.
Again Anna found herself in the cemetery, this time she didn't even look for her father.
Later that afternoon after the grave had been filled and flowers had been placed over and around, a lone figure walked over the hill and came to stand by the quiet graveside. "Goodbye old man. Sorry we never got the chance to meet but Mary told me what kind of man you were and you proved her right. You've done a great job with Anna. You took care of her, you gave her what I never could and you loved her. You gave her the childhood she deserved. I promise you I won't let her come to harm. I'll watch out for her like I always have. You rest now and tell…tell Mary…well you know." And as quickly and quietly as he had arrived he disappeared.
Graduation day started out somewhat bittersweet.
She had worked so hard to get here. She knew how proud Papa and Meme would have been. It was as much their dream for her to go to college as it had been hers. Now here she was without them.
Her heart tightened in her chest and she swallowed around the lump in her throat envying her classmates and their families.
"And what have you got to be so sad about?" she could hear Meme's voice in her head and couldn't help but smile. Suddenly she could feel them with her. She wasn't really alone after all.
She gave herself a mental shake, pulled her ragged nerves together and finished getting ready.
Later after the ceremony and the many hugs and well wishes from her friends and classmates she headed for her car more than ready to get home and finish packing.
That's when she saw him. She knew it was him. He still wasn't close but he was close enough for her to get a look at his face this time and there was no mistaking the likeness.
He was standing apart from most of the people there, just standing but definitely watching her. Then she noticed that he wasn't alone this time, there was another man standing slightly behind him. An older handsome man, tall well built with an air of authority about him. He stood with a hand on her father's shoulder as if in encouragement. Both men definitely commanded attention turning more than one head.
She gripped her diploma tightly and hurried toward them. She struggled through the small groups of families and well wishers determined to catch up to them but try as she might once again…nothing.
Frustration boiled under her skin. She wanted to scream! At that moment she determined in her heart that she would find him if it was that last thing she ever did. He might have his reasons for keeping his distance but she didn't care about his reasons any more. She was tired of this cat and mouse game and she desperately longed for her daddy.
She had to catch a flight to Miami at 8:00 that evening for a job interview with a design firm the next day so her determination was shelved for the time being but she wouldn't forget. Nope she was patient, she could wait.
Anna was now in her second year at the design house. Time had gone by so fast that she had scarcely taken the time to breath.
She was confident and happy, she had found her niche with the dream job she loved, and now on top of all this she was head over heals in love.
Danny wasn't like anyone she had ever known. He was sweet and funny and had a way of knowing just what to say in any given situation. He was not her knight in shining armor nor was he a prince charming but…he was…he was…everything.
She had an idea that Danny was ready to take the next step, in fact she was sure of it. After all she had seen him showing off the ring to Mrs. Cavanaugh down the hall when he Hadn't known she was anywhere near.
This knowledge only strengthened her resolve. She was more determined now than ever to find her father. She had no doubt that he would probably be at her wedding but she didn't want him sitting on the back row, no not this time, she wanted him there to walk her down the isle. She wanted this so bad she could taste it.
When Danny did pop the question she bared her soul to him. "I know it sounds foolish but deep in my heart I know he's always been there for me. I've even seen him at the big events, you know…piano recitals, graduations and…funerals. He was always way in the back where I could never get close or get a good look at him, but I know he was there."
"Ok, I can see how important this is to you, I don't know what we can do but we'll do something." He drew her closer and just held her for a long time, letting his strength and love surround her. He could clearly see how important this was to her and knowing her as he did he knew she really believed her father had always been close by, but with nothing to go on he didn't know what they could do.
Paul, Danny's older brother worked for a private investigations firm and while he acknowledged that they had little information to work with, he had worked other cases with even less. "Look you guys, just let me see what I can find out. You never know till you try." He grinned his thousand watt smile and gave Anna a bear hug. "Let's call it my wedding present to you, ok?" Anna kissed him on the cheek hoping in spite of herself that Paul would come up with something.
After a month and a half Paul was still no closer to finding him than he'd been when he began the investigation. He had delved into Anna's mother's past trying without success to piece together the events of Anna's Mother's life right out of high school.
In desperation he found himself following the cold trail of a young girl wanting to set out on her own. He ended up in Chicago at a little green house on Sullivan street. The whole neighborhood had deteriorated, no longer the neat little houses with manicured lawns and flower beds it had once been. Now the houses were rundown and the yards and flowerbeds were overrun with weeds. Paul knew that the odds of finding anyone who could remember Anna and her mother were zero to none, but never one to give up without a fight he started knocking on doors.
Midway down the block he stopped at a house better maintained than most. The grass in the yard looked to be cut regularly and there were roses lining the walk to the door. There was a good chance that whoever lived here had been a resident for more that just a few years.
He waited patiently at the door as the older black woman checked his ID suspiciously. Finally satisfied that he was who he claimed to be she let him in and had soon ushered him into her kitchen where they sat at an aged dinette table sipping cups of strong chicory coffee.
She smiled as his eyes widened with his first swallow. "Yes nice and strong just like my grandmother made it back home in Plaquemines Parish, yes indeed. You know you can't get good chicory coffee just anywhere, no you can't. I have family who come to visit once a year and bring all the stuff I can't get up here."
"Have you lived in the city long?" Paul gasped out after getting his breath back.
"Oh, I come up here with my Roger nigh on to fifty year ago. Wadn't no real jobs for black folks in Louisiana or anywhere else in the South back then, so a whole bunch of us just come on up here."
"Me and Roger we did alright…yes indeed. We bought this house, raised our children up right. We put everyone of um through college too. My Roger died a few years back and now my children are livin all over the place. Roger Jr. is a major in the Marine Corps, yes sir made his daddy real proud." She laughed,
"Oh my I could go on all day but you don't want to sit here and listen to a lonely old woman go on and on. you had some business on your mind didn't you?"
"Yes ma'am," Paul fished a picture out of his pocket and handed it to her "I was wondering if you might remember this woman?"
"Oh my lands!" she cried out reaching for the picture "yes, yes I surely do. She was a sweet little thing. She went and got in the family way you know but she did right by the little one, yes she did.
She smiled lost in memories "Mary was just finishin up with secretary school. She already had a pretty good job working for Ingersauls' Construction downtown and was hopin that graduatin would help her make more money. It was important for her to make her own way in the world. Somehow she bought that little house on the corner just down the street. Roger always thought that the little un's daddy must a bought it. He said they aint no way Mary coulda bought that house out right like she done on what a secretary made. I don't know…I think she probably would really made something of herself but she was a sickly little thing always getting a cold or coming down with the flu. I think she just wasn't used to the weather up here, it can get to you if you aint used to it."
"She never talked about her man. I could tell she was gone on him but for some reason he never did marry her. I remember Her saying that her mama and daddy lived in Mississippi and it just made more sense for her to move down there closer to them. She never did say what had come between her and them but I think she was meaning to make amends." Her eyes narrowed slightly "if you don't mind my asking, just why are you looking for Mary?"
Deciding to put all his cards on the table Paul went with the truth "Well you see Mary died some years ago from a very aggressive form of cancer and Anna was raised by her grandparents who are both now gone as well. She never knew her father or anything about him but would love to find out something about him." he laughed a tight little laugh "She has this notion that she want's for him to walk her down the isle and I offered that to her as a wedding present." I know that you said that Mary never talked about him, but did you ever see her with anyone, maybe run into them together…?" Paul asked hoping against hope.
"You know come to think of it I think I might have seen him a couple of times but I didn't know who he was and Mary bein a private person and all just didn't talk about him."
"You said you saw him, do you think you could describe him to a sketch artist?" he knew he was pushing his luck so he wasn't too disappointed by her answer.
"Son, that was close to twenty years ago and I've slept since then. Lordy, I wouldn't know him now if he was sittin there where you are." She shook her head and cocked her head to the side as if thinking "I take that back. I do remember something though, he reminded me of a big cat the way he walked without makin a sound…and them eyes of his."
Paul reached into his pocket and removed his wallet, he then slid it over to her showing her the photo that Anna and Danny had taken for their wedding announcement. He asked "Does this nudge your memory at all, her mother always told her that she was the very image of her father." He was still hoping for a little good news.
The old woman took a look and immediately let out a whoop. "Oh my yes! All you gotta do is look for a man who looks just like her and you got him, baby."
The wedding was still many months away but already Anna was beginning to feel overwhelmed. This wedding was turning out to be more than the simple little affair she had envisioned at the beginning. Danny's mom was almost like a force of nature, a whirlwind of ideas. She'd already contacted caterers and wedding planners getting quotes and price lists.
There was the disappointment she felt at not being any closer to finding her father and then there was the house in Mississippi. She had gotten a call from a relater who said that he had a client who wanted to lease the old house. She really had no plans to move back but that had been home and the house had been in the family for so long…how could she let someone else live there?
That evening while she cried on Danny's shoulder he came up with the idea to go back for a visit. "Look, we've both got some time saved up right? Let's take a little vacation, you know go look at the house? We can pack things up, fix what needs to be fixed and just play it by ear from there. I know that you don't want to sell, but you know…it might not be so bad to consider leasing it. You know a house is sort of like a living thing. It doesn't like to sit empty and alone, it needs a family."
Anna smiled a watery smile and hid her face in the crook of his neck. "Thank you Danny. Thank you for knowing how big a deal this is, for being so understanding and for putting up with me these last few weeks. I know that I haven't been easy to live with."
"Oh Sweetheart, you think I don't know what you've had to deal with? She's my mother after all. I know this is not the wedding you wanted. She can be pretty headstrong at times." He added.
Anna laughed a little hiccupping laugh halfway between a giggle and a sob, "It's ok Danny, I'm just so disappointed that I haven't found him, you know? I don't care what kind of wedding we have as long as he's there to walk me down the isle. I don't know what to do." She sobbed again onto his already soggy shoulder.
"Another good reason to go back to that little one traffic light town. You need to put some distance between you and all of this. Mom will understand, in fact she will be thrilled, it'll be like turning her loose in a candy store."
Anna laughed again pulling back enough to look into his eyes, "She's really very sweet, I think she's just planning the wedding she wanted and never thought she could have. Poor thing, four children and all of them boys, she had probably given up hope." She finished on a little giggle. "I just hope we can afford to pay for it."
"Danny? Did you mean it? About going back home?"
He smiled and kissed her "Sure did, when do you want to leave?"
"It'll only take me an hour to pack" she said as she headed for her bedroom leaving him where he stood.
He chuckled to himself "I guess I had better call the airline then."
The next afternoon Anna found herself standing on the front porch of the old house on Tate Street. Danny parked the rented SUV in the drive where Papa used to park his old pickup.
Anna looked around noticing the thick layer of pine straw, cones and limbs littering the once park-like front yard. The azaleas needed to be cut back and she also noticed that the paint was beginning to flake on the porch. "You're right" she said in a tiny voice "It looks so sad, almost lonely."
"I know, but we're here now and we'll make sure she's fixed up and happy again."
Memories washed over her as she passed through the front door. There stood her piano. She reached out and removed the drape revealing Meme's mother's crochet scarf and the family pictures lying face down. She raised them to their former position rearranging them slightly.
There stood Papa's chair over in the corner, even wearing the drape it looked smaller than she had remembered.
She dropped her purse on the small table that Meme had used to sort the mail. Papa had constructed a series of little cubbies for each one of them, one for bills (that was Papa's), one for Meme, and one for Mama and Anna.
She shook her head chasing the memories away, rolled up her sleeves and began removing all the coverings from the furniture while Danny drove down to the Win Dixie to get the cleaning supplies they would need
Anna dusted and took down the drapes while Danny vacuumed and swept the cobwebs out of the corners. When they had finished with the living room Danny scaled the stairs while Anne hit the kitchen.
It took her all evening to get Meme's kitchen sparkling again. She had been so busy scrubbing that she hadn't taken time to think about dinner. It was nearly eight before Danny made his way back down covered in a fine layer of dust. "Hey I'm hungry as a bear. Lets go find something to eat."
"Oh Danny, look at us, we're not fit to go out in public." She laughed rubbing at the smudge on the side of his nose. "Believe it or not there is a little Chinese restaurant just past the Dollar Store on Canal Street and I believe it delivers."
"Great!" he kissed the tip of her nose "you call in the order and I'll go take a shower."
"Hey no fair!" She called after him.
"Sorry Babe, I called it first" he laughed.
"That's ok you just go right ahead, I don't mind, I'll just sit here in the corner amid the dust and ashes." She wiped her hands on a handy dish towel and continued "Say hi to the wicked stepmother and the ugly sisters while you're up there Prince Charming." She could hear his laughter tumbling down after him.
Anna placed the call and went upstairs to change from her sweaty t-shirt into something less sticky and smelly.
She passed by the bedroom that Papa and Meme had shared for so many years and felt compelled to go in. she moved as if some unseen hand pulled at her.
Anna hadn't been in the room since Papa had passed, and then she had only covered the bed with a sheet, boxed up the few things she could see on the dresser and bedside table and then had locked the door behind her.
With a sigh she wandered around touching the dresser, drawing a line in the dust on top. she sneezed and peeked in a drawer. Everything was there just as Meme had left them. Like her, Papa hadn't had the heart to box up her things and put them away. She looked through the silk scarves and lacy under-things smiling, remembering Meme and how hard she and Mama had tried to make her a lady just like them. Her fingers encountered something stiff. Curious she pulled it out to find that it was and envelope with her name written in Meme's dainty script. With her heart pounding in her throat she opened the envelope to find a birthday card. Anna almost lost her breath. Meme must have hidden it in her drawer. She died before she could give it to her.
Anna sat on the side of the bed and opened the card "To my darling Anna, I love you more than you'll ever know." Anna hugged the card to her rocking back and forth. She could almost hear Meme's voice. she gently slid the card back into the envelope only to find that something else lay in the envelope.
She shook out a couple of pages of stationary folded inward three times. Anna recognized the stationary. It was Mama's. With shaking hands she smoothed out the folds and immediately Mama's spidery scrawl jumped out at her. She couldn't believe what she held. For so many years she had longed for something like this. She took a deep breath and began to read.
I was told today that my time with you on this earth is much shorter than I had hoped. I knew that my illness was not going to go away but hearing it from the doctor as I did today has made me do some serious thinking.
You are without a doubt the bravest person I've ever known, so I know that you will be fine without me. I'm not really leaving you alone. You know how much your Papa and Meme love you and will be there for you. I know you will miss me as I will you, but know always that I love you and that this is not the end. We will be together again one day, I truly believe that.
This news has forced me to consider my past and the mistakes that I've made. I wish I could tell you these things face to face but as I've said before you are much braver than I.
You deserve to know a few things so as best I can and trying not to justify myself here goes.
I graduated from high school with every intention of going to collage but I also wanted to see some of the world before I settled down to bury myself in books and lock myself away to study. I was tired of that and wished to have some adventure. Your grandparents did not understand this need and 'laid down the law' as Meme might say. One thing led to another, I said some things and they said some things and the next thing I knew I was on a bus in the middle of the night on my way to New York city."
Ann was dumbfounded she had never heard this story before. Somehow she just couldn't picture Mama running away from home.
" I worked for a while waiting tables and then I tried my hand at performing in a little theatre. Believe me when I say that it takes more than just a pretty face! I found that talent helps a little too, but sad to say I had more of the former and very little of the latter.
I caught a ride to Chicago with some friends who had a band , (by the way talent would have helped there too.) the band moved on but I met a boy who swept me off my feet. I got a job and rented a little two room apartment. then began to plan my wedding. One of the most important things needed for a wedding is a groom and unfortunately he decided he didn't want the job after all. He broke my heart and left me in debt.
I decided there and then that I would never fall like that again. Anna always remember, never say never. One night on my way home from work an idiot who couldn't take no for an answer tried to get a little too friendly, ripping my blouse and scaring the life out of me. I fought him off and limped home embarrassed and feeling foolish. On the way up the stairs to my apartment I bumped into a solid mass of bone and muscle clad in black leather. I think if I had not looked into his eyes I might have been alright. Again I fell hook line and sinker.
Your father was one handsome man I must admit. He also possessed a kindness that took me by surprise. I have never felt so loved. I make no excuses I knew what I was doing. When I found out that I was going to have a baby I think he was scared at first but soon seemed to like the idea of being a daddy. He seemed to get more and more excited every day. He told me that he would always take care of us but that because of the nature of his work he would not be able to marry me right away. I couldn't understand and he couldn't tell me why. I was angry at first and said some terrible things but he looked so hurt, so wounded that I couldn't stay angry with him. I knew that I didn't want to live without him so decided to take what I could get. Do I seem foolish to you? I know I must but still I don't regret my choice to love him.
When you were borne he fell madly in love with you, so much so that I almost felt jealous. He spoiled you terribly and would have done anything for you in fact because he worried so about our safety living in that apartment, he bought you a house."
Vaguely she heard the doorbell ringing and then a thumping down the stairs but she was so caught up with her find that she paid no attention.
"I've never seen a grown man so captivated by his little girl, my dear you had him wrapped around your tiny little finger. I really believe he would have died for you, I guess in a way he did."
Anna's heart stopped
"One night he came home limping and bruised and very agitated. He told me things that frighten me even today just remembering. He also said that there were people who wanted to hurt him and that they would stop at nothing. He believed that we were in danger so he decided to make sure no one knew about us. The next thing I knew we were standing in the airport. He gave me a rather large sum of money and a ticket for the first flight out of Chicago. I tried to understand but I was much too frightened. I asked him to come with us but he said that would only put us in greater danger. He took you in his arms and hugged you tightly to him. I had never seen him cry but there were tears in his eyes then. What he did next scared me silly. He told me to tell you that he was dead.. That way you would never try to find him. He thought you would be safer that way. He then told me that I should swallow my pride and go home to my parents find a good man settle down and live a long happy life, and before I could argue he was gone, he had just disappeared..
Confused and dazed I found myself in Biloxi. I was still too proud to go running home to Mama and Daddy like a little puppy with my tail between my legs so I took the money he had given me and I bought the little house we both loved so much, it seemed to remind me of him somehow. For the first few years I kept waiting for him to turn up but, well. you know the rest,
I haven't seen him since that night at the airport, but I will always love him, I can't help myself. I hope you don't think too badly of me or think me too foolish I only wanted a little adventure but ended up with more than I bargained for.
I told you once that you were your daddy's little girl, but you are also mine. I never let you believe that your father was dead because I've always believed you deserve to know the truth. I also know that you will try to find him one day. (of course you will find him) please give him a kiss for me and tell him that I've never stopped loving him. But be careful my bright beautiful girl don't do anything that might put you in danger. Be good and listen to Papa and Meme and by all means I fully expect you to grow up to be a lady (even if it kills you).
I will love you always, Mama"
She looked up to find Danny standing in front of her "Babe you ok?" he looked concerned. Reaching up she wiped away the wet tracks on both cheeks, funny she hadn't realize that she had been crying until that moment. She handed him the letter and waited for him to finish.
He let out a whistle as he finished the last page. It was a lot to digest. he folded the letter and slid it back into the envelope. "Come on Sweetheart, the food is here. Lets eat before it gets cold." He took her hand in his and she rose to follow him.
In a daze she allowed him to lead her to the kitchen and seat her at a place at the table. He removed cartons of sweet and sour pork, shrimp fried rice and egg rolls.
They both decided to ignore the letter for the moment.
Anna cleared her throat "Meme would have a fit to see us eating like this, she would have considered it an insult." Then she smiled and added "the only thing worse would have been a frozen dinner."
Danny studied her for a moment "how did she feel about paper plates?"
"Paper plates!" she giggled "Meme would have died if I'd brought paper plates into her house!"
Anna decided to give in to her hunger so, ravenous they dug in and consumed every scrap and crumb finishing up with the fortune cookies. Anna read hers and then reread it.
"Anna? What's up? What does it say?"
Glancing toward the letter and then back down to the little slip of paper she read it for him "One must understand the past to realize the future" she shook her head. "Oh Danny, if they only knew."
Paul had hit one dead end after another since his visit in the old neighborhood. He didn't know what else to do short of a little breaking and entering into the law offices of Bradford, Mason & Wilcox. He had tried to get information from David Wilcox the senior partner and executor of Anna's trust, but the man was adamant in that he could not break client privilege and his client did not want his identity to be known to anyone. In fact he warned Paul that it might be best for his own self interest not to pry into this any further.
He dreaded telling Anna the bad news but this man whoever he was must have a powerful reason for not wanting to be found.
Anna had argued with herself over and over again, could she allow someone she didn't know to move in? What in the world would Papa and Meme think? Suddenly she had visions of Meme's ghost hounding the occupants to wipe their shoes before stepping onto the carpet.
In the last two days she and Danny had gone through the old house cataloging a list of repairs from peeling wallpaper to loose floor boards. Some of the windows needed to be replaced and there was evidence of mice in the laundry room. She shook her head trying to clear her mind of the many more things on that list.
The ringing of her cell phone interrupted her present argument "Hello?"
"Hi Anna." She recognized Paul's voice.
"Paul!" she felt her knees weaken "Please tell me some good news."
"Fraid not, I'm sorry Anna. I've done everything I know to do. The man just doesn't want to be found."
She could hear Danny out on the front step stomping the dirt off his shoes where he had been working in the yard.
"Anna? You there?" Paul sounded concerned.
"Yes, um…thanks Paul, I know you did your best. Look, I need to do some thinking."
"I'm so sorry Anna, I want you to know that I won't give up but it doesn't look like we're gonna find him for a while."
"I know, I'll talk to you later and thanks again." She clicked the off button on her cell.
Danny came in wiping the dirt and sweat from his face with the tail of his shirt. "Man am I beat! Well anyway that's the last of the yard work for today. You know Anna we really need to get somebody out here to check the gutters and it looks like there are a few shingles missing at the back…Hey! What's wrong baby?" he reached for her as she buried her face in her hands sobbing.
"Oh Danny, I don't know what to do!" she wailed.
"Come on sweetheart don't cry." He held her tightly
"Danny we can't afford to do everything we need to do to get the house back in shape. We can't live here, and how can I let it just sit here and run down? But…I can't even think about someone else living here. I know it sounds stupid but this is home, you know?" she sobbed into his shoulder.
"Yeah I know baby." He held on letting her cry.
"Danny? Why doesn't he want me to find him?" she sobbed all the more
"Hey, where did that come from?" he held her face in his hands so that he could look into her eyes. "This was more than just the house isn't it?"
"Come on" He led her into the kitchen and poured her a cup of coffee.
He set the cup in front of her "It's probably strong enough to eat paint but it might help."
She raised the cup to her lips holding it tightly in both hands to stop their shaking. She sipped and made a face but swallowed the strong brew. It did seem to clear her head somewhat. She smiled a shaky smile "Paul just called a few minutes ago."
"Yeah, and?" he prompted.
She could only shake her head no.
"Oh Anna, I'm so sorry." It was almost the same words his brother had used moments earlier. He reached for her hand and gave a comforting squeeze.
"It's just so disappointing you know? And then there's the house…" she couldn't finish.
Danny took a deep breath and let it out in a rush "Ok, Anna I know this might seem like a hard thing to do, but why don't we visit the relater and find out who these people are." He took another deep breath when she didn't say anything "I'm not trying to tell you what to do, whatever you decide is ok with me but lets get all the info we can before you decide. And about your dad…I don't know why he's making himself scarce but I really believe that one day you'll find him. Until then let's do what we can ok?"
She nodded and smiled a week smile. "Danny, thanks for being here."
He raised her hand to his lips where he planted a kiss in the palm "I wouldn't be anywhere else."
James Mathis the relater met them in his office the next morning. "Please come in and sit down." He indicated the two chairs facing his desk.
"Thank you for seeing us so soon Mr. Mathis." Anna began "We would like to know a little about the people who want to lease my house." She smiled nervously "It's not easy for me to even consider but it might make things easier if I were to know something about them."
"Well let me see…" he ticked through his rolodex "here we go…a Mr. John F. Byers. Seems he lives in Washington."
"Washington, you mean the one on the west coast?" Danny seemed surprised.
Mathis glanced at the card again "No actually he's in DC."
"Can you tell me anything about him? Is he married? Does he have a family?"
He shook his head genuinely apologetic "I'm sorry Ms. Lee, that's all I have. I wish I could tell you more."
Clearly disappointed Anna sighed "So do I Mr. Mathis, so do I."
Two days later Paul was sitting at Meme's kitchen table. "I did a search on the name you gave me and found out a few interesting tidbits." He said while typing something on the keyboard of his laptop.
"Really, our Mr. Byers doesn't have underworld connections does he?" Danny joked.
"You think you're joking but...." Paul grinned clearly having fun with this.
"Please don't tell me he's a mass murder or bank robber or something." Anna begged with a sense of foreboding.
"Oh no, this is much better. Mr. John Byers is the editor of "The Magic Bullet Newsletter". It's a news publication documenting everything from Government conspiracies to Alien abductions." He smirked.
Anna looked stunned "Oh great! And this man wants to lease my house? I don't think so."
Paul turned the screen of his laptop toward them "Check out some of this stuff." And he began to click through some of the files. There were bizarre headlines heralding Alien invasion, others warning of secret underworld organizations and the list went on and on.
Anna skimmed through many of the files opening one here and another there and laughing with the others at the outrageous headlines and the even more unbelievable photos. Suddenly she stopped in stunned silence, staring at the screen. She felt her heart racing and a loud ringing in her ears. it was only a matter of seconds but it felt longer, finally she got her tongue working properly "Oh my god, oh my god…it's him!"
Danny who had been standing behind her studied the picture. A very well dressed man his visage screaming of wealth, was in handcuffs and being escorted by a very stern looking government agent. The caption read "Senator Thomas Kraine, arrested for money laundering and insurance fraud" The article went on about Consortium front men and FBI investigations. The only agent mentioned in the article was one AD Walter S. Skinner, who "refused to comment at this time".
"It's him, Danny I cant believe it's him." she was trembling and her eyes were glistening.
Danny turned her toward him so that he could see her face. "What are you talking about? How do you know this senator…whatever?" he floundered the mans name already forgotten. "Have you got a sorted past I know nothing about?" he added jokingly.
"No, no you don't understand. I've seen the other one, the FBI agent. He was at my graduation. You know I told you that I was sure that my dad was there and that there was another man with him, well this is the other man. Danny he knows my dad! Don't you see!? I find him I find my father!"
"Anna, I need you to look at one more file" and she turned back to the laptop as Paul opened the next file. There was Ad Walter Skinner again with another man in handcuffs. Anna lost her breath. It was her father, there was no doubt. She could have been looking at a male version of herself. There was no caption with this picture other than the FBI continued to bring in suspects for questioning.
She burst into tears "Oh Paul, you found him. do you have any idea where he might be?" Paul shook his head "No but maybe AD Walter Skinner will be willing to tell us something. Um Anna, you did see that he was in handcuffs right? You might not want to know him after all."
"Oh no Paul, my daddy would never be a criminal. No you go talk to Mr. Skinner and find him for me ok?"
Paul sighed and agreed to do as she asked "Ok Anna, ok."
Anna's Father seemed to be an expert in covering his tracks but Walter Skinner didn't seem to care.
Paul found him in a suburb of DC where he had been living since his retirement from the FBI a few years before. It was a nice quiet little neighborhood made up mostly older houses, some with kids playing in the yards. Trees planted more than sixty years before lined the streets making the sidewalks cooler. It was just a nice place to live.
He staked out the neighborhood finally getting a glimpse of Skinner later that evening when he took the trash out to the curb, "Anna? I've found Mr. Skinner." He waited for her to say something, then "Oh Paul!" he could hear the tears in her voice "Thank you." Paul took a deep breath, "Are you sure you want me to talk to him? I mean, Anna…for all you know your dad could be in prison"
"No, Paul. I'd like to talk to him myself. If my dad is around you may scare him off, please wait for me I'll try to get a plane out tonight. By and thanks again you don't know what this means to me. I've never been this close before."
"Ok, Anna but I can't help being afraid that you're setting yourself up for heartache."
"Oh don't you worry about me. I'll be alright. And you'll see, my daddy is a good man. he's no criminal Paul, you'll see."
She ended the connection and Paul leaned back in the seat of his rental "Anna, Anna, Anna…" he shook his head "more like Pollyanna. I just hope he doesn't break your heart."
The next day Anna stood on Mr. Walter Skinner's porch shaking like a leaf her knees threatening to turn to spaghetti. Danny squeezed her hand as she reached her other trembling toward the door bell.
She heard the click of the door latch and then she was looking into soft brown eyes alight with pleasure and good humor. "Hi Anna, it sure took you long enough."
She was taken aback by the greeting and stammered unable to make a coherent sentence.
Walter Skinner laughed and ushered them in through the house and out onto the pack deck. "I hope you don't mind but it's cooler out here this time of day. Can I offer you something to drink?"
"Thanks that would be nice" Danny answered for both of them as they found seats in the comfortable over stuffed padded rattan furniture..
While Walter was inside Anna tried to get her wits about her. "Oh Danny! He acts like he knew we were coming! What if he warned my dad!"
Before Danny could say anything Walter walked out onto the deck bearing a tray with glasses and a pitcher of iced tea. "Yes, I did know you were coming," he poured the tea into the glasses and handing them around. "There's beer in the fridge if you'd rather have that." He offered. "No, no this is fine." Danny answered for both of them. Skinner then made himself comfortable Your friend is pretty good, but I finally had to haul out the garbage to let him know that yes indeed I was here. I'm supposing that's when he called you?"
Anna only nodded.
Skinner chuckled "I had been expecting to see someone when John told me that he traced your hit on the website. I called your father to come over when I saw the two of you park across the street."
"You mean you planned this?" Anna was incredulous.
"Well none of us is getting any younger. You don't have the training to find him and Alex can't work up the nerve to go to you. He doesn't know about you being here by the way." He added grinning.
Danny began to laugh and couldn't stop, soon they were all laughing. It acted as a release valve, Anna felt the tension and apprehension dissolve.
"Hey Walt! You got company?" came a voice from within the house and suddenly there he was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, emerald eyes locked on her own.
He swallowed but still couldn't find his voice again.
Walter stood still grinning even wider "Miss Anna Lee at long last it would be my pleasure to introduce you to Mr. Alex Krycek, your father."
Strangely calm for the first time in days, Anna stood and smiled "Hello Daddy."
Alex looked like he was about to cut and run but Walter had managed to grab his wrist and pull him out onto the deck.
Alex swallowed again, "What are you doing here?"
Anna laughed and went to him, "I'm getting married and I wanted my father to walk me down the isle." She kissed his cheek and soon found herself in a desperate hug.
How he had longed to do this and now here she was and it seemed only natural to gather her up in his arms. Soon they were both crying and clinging to one another.
Finally Alex pushed her back at arms length and just looked at her, he looked his fill, memorizing everything about her at this moment.
"Skinner? How long have you had this planned?" Alex asked in a tight voice never taking his eyes off of Anna.
Walter with a lazy grin on his face settled back in his chair "Oh I don't know, I guess about three years now. Yeah, that's about right." He nodded "ever since you chickened out at her graduation." He finished.
"You son of a…"
"Now, now be nice." His grin was insufferable.
"I don't understand…" Anna sounded confused looking from one man to the other.
"Well you see, Alex has been wanting to get together with you for quite a while but…well for reasons I'm not at liberty to discuss he's thought it best for you to keep his distance. But times change and there is no longer anything standing in the way."
Alex still holding Anna at arms length but unable to look her in the eye bowed his head with a defeated slump to his shoulders. Anna moved closer and lifted his chin with her fingertips "He's right Daddy. It's time we got to know one another."
Walter threw a few steaks on the grill, tossed a salad together and put some potatoes in the oven to bake. Danny thought it prudent to 'help out' and let Anna and her father have a little privacy. "Mr. Skinner, how long have you known Anna's dad?"
Walter watched the younger man over the tops of his glasses "You wanting to know about the pictures on the website?" Danny felt himself blush. "Well it is kinda confusing."
"Alex and I have had been through some pretty weird shit together. We haven't always got along that's true. In fact, we started off on opposing sides. He beat the crap out of me, I beat the crap out of him, he shot me, I shot him…" seeing the look on Danny's face Walter cleared his throat "Well, even though we were enemies we were forced to work together due to certain events that I'm not allowed to discuss. He may have been a real rat bastard in his early days but he more than made up for his past. Like I said I can't go into any of the details but I will say this, Alex Krycek saved the world as we know it and almost single handed at that." He winced when he realized what he had said. "No pun intended."
Danny stood with eyes wide. "I don't know what to say."
"Don't say anything. He'll rip me a new one when he finds out I've told you this much."
"Single handed?" Danny ventured wondering how Alex had lost his arm.
"Sorry son, if I were you, I wouldn't mention that either."
They all ate out on the deck. The food was good and the laughter plentiful.
After dinner when the dishes had been washed and the leftovers put away Anna and Alex looked through the picture albums she had thought to pack and bring with her.
They sat and talked for hours. She talked and couldn't stop talking while Alex listened soaking it all up like a dry sponge.
After a while Anna tried to turn the conversation back toward Alex but he always had another question. Finally Anna just took the bull by the horns. "I'm tired of talking about me. I want to know about you?" Alex became very quiet. "There's not much to say." He told her not meeting her eyes. "Daddy, I don't want to know anything you don't want to tell me. I want to know…what you were like as a kid growing up. I want to know where you grew up. I want to know about your family…my family. I want to be a part of your life now and I definitely want you to be a part of mine. I want…I guess I just want you."
He raised his eyes to meet hers and she saw the pain he had tried so hard to hide. "Alright Anna, I'll tell you what I can but I need to know something first." he took her hand in his giving it a gentle squeeze. "Why did you try to find me? I told Mary to tell you I was dead. How did you know?" and then she told him about the letter and placed her mother's kiss on his cheek.
And she saw it all written across his face. All the love her mother had professed for him was there shining back at her. In all the years of separation he had never stopped loving them. Her heart swelled insider of her and she knew that she had come home again.
Home wasn't the house in Mississippi after all. She remembered what Papa had told her when she had been a little girl, she could almost hear his voice "Ya know, home aint necessarily a house. I found out that home, real home is somebody you love."
Alex was scared to death. There wasn't much in this world that had ever frightened him but now he had gone quickly from scared straight into terrified.
He had been elated when he had heard the news that Anna and Danny would have a baby but now that she was in labor he could only remember the pain Mary had endured for almost a day and a half. Her labor had not been easy and the thought of his little girl…well there were just too many things that could go wrong.
He had hopped on the first plane he could get and then sat the whole trip worrying and praying and worrying some more. He grabbed a cab at the airport and stewed and cursed the driver in at least 5 different languages before the poor man could get him to the hospital. He paid the driver and raced up the front steps taking them two at a time.
On the third floor where Labor & Delivery was located he found her birthing suite. She looked up from the small bundle she held as he entered the room and she was radiant in the same way Mary had been. All the discomfort and pain completely forgotten.
An exhausted Danny lay sleeping on the small sofa on the other side of the large room. She raised a finger to her lips to let Alex know not to wake him.
He walked quietly to her bedside and just stood there watching her as she held her child his eyes drinking in everything.
Without a word she handed over the small bundle. Then still smiling and in a low voice she said "Elizabeth Ann, I am so pleased to introduce you to your Papa."